Act now to not lose your female talent

Culture  Leadership
24 August, 2020

The risks of the pandemic on women team members

We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat”*

The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting us all. In different ways.  And to varying degrees. Some of us are handling extra responsibilities of childcare. Others are facing a sharp increase in household chores. Many are struggling with the practical realities of work from home (WFH). To add to this, women and men are experiencing these obstacles differently.

So, my message this week focuses on the risks of the pandemic towards female talent. How can leaders prevent a female talent drain? How do we not squander some of the limited gains made over the last decade?

For leaders battling critical issues like financial viability and employee safety, this issue might not seem to be urgent. However, failing to act now could have severe consequences for your organization. It takes just weeks or months to fall behind a few steps – but it takes years to recover lost ground.

Early in the pandemic, reports were optimistic, suggesting that some women team members would benefit from the added flexibility offered by WFH. Without long commutes and after-hours “face time”, wouldn’t working mothers be better equipped to juggle their roles? A few months down the line, however, things have played out quite differently. Now, there are apprehensions that COVID-19 could set back some of the progress towards gender equality in the workplace.

This is a global concern: a study by McKinsey shows that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis. While women make up 39 percent of global employment, they account for 54 percent of overall job losses. One reason for this is that women are heavily employed in many of the hardest-hit sectors, including hospitality, retail and tourism.  However, market dynamics alone don’t explain the sharp rate at which women’s employment is being impacted.  Women handle the vast majority of unpaid work in the home (chores, childcare, home-schooling, elder care, etc.) – as much as 80-90 percent in regions like South Asia. This is why working women have traditionally done a “second shift”, outside of office hours. Now, working remotely while the entire family is at home, they have to do both shifts at the same time, along with an increased load of household responsibilities. In India, for example, women are spending an estimated 30 percent more time on domestic work during COVID-19. As the McKinsey paper points out:

Our research found that the share of women in unpaid-care work has a high and negative correlation with female labour-force participation rates and a moderately negative correlation with women’s chances of…assuming leadership positions.

It’s not all bad news though. The last few months have seen progress as well, with many men now handling more household work than before. However, they are still a small proportion. Research shows that even when both partners are working from home, the majority share of domestic responsibilities still falls to women. Moreover, men prefer to stay at their workstations, often in a separate room, while women work wherever they can squeeze in, often surrounded by distractions. Social attitudes play a vital role here, as the McKinsey report explains: 

These aren’t new beliefs but rather traditional societal mindsets about the role of women. They may be reflected in current decisions, at the organisational level or indeed within the family.

An increasing gender-gap at work

Existing imbalances in the workplace have also been amplified. In the HBR artcle, Why the Crisis Is Putting Companies at Risk of Losing Female Talent, Colleen Ammerman and Boris Groysberg from the Harvard Business School,  outline the “motherhood penalty” and “fatherhood premium”:

Being seen in a caregiving role tends to boost men’s reputation and elicit warmth from others, but when women’s caregiving is visible, it triggers doubts about their capabilities. Women with children are viewed as less competent and less committed than women without children and men, including fathers.

Under current circumstances, it’s nearly impossible to strictly demarcate “work” and “kids”, especially with young children: they may appear onscreen or noisily interrupt virtual meetings. In such a case, the mother’s competence will likely be questioned, whereas a father will probably be praised.

Another example is how virtual meetings are being organised. With efficiency being a prime concern, male leaders may prefer to huddle in smaller groups to make quick decisions – which often translates to all-male groups, based on the “people like us” principle. With digital channels, women are being excluded in new ways: from invisible side conversations between male managers, to virtual socialising that leaves out female team members. Often, women may not even be aware that they are being shunted to the side-lines, making it difficult for them to address the problem.

The macro impact

The consequences of gender regression will be seen not just at the individual and organisational level, but also at a broader economic scale. The McKinsey paper highlights the impact on global GDP in 2030, modelling three scenarios based on differing responses from policymakers and business leaders:

  • No action to address regression: GDP US$ 1 trillion less than if COVID-19 had affected men and women’s employment equally
  • Prompt action: $13 trillion of incremental GDP
  • Delayed action: $8 trillion of incremental GDP

If we don’t address pandemic-related gender imbalances, we lose a valuable opportunity for economic growth.

Looking at it from this angle, if we don’t address pandemic-related gender imbalances, we lose a valuable opportunity for economic growth as well. As the authors put it:

The evidence from our research is clear: what is good for greater gender equality is also good for the economy and society as a whole. 

Here are five actions to prevent your female talent from becoming collateral damage during COVID-19:

1. Foster a gender-neutral attitude to childcare

Encourage a team culture in which women’s dedication to work isn’t questioned based on their motherhood responsibilities. Regardless of gender, leaders must challenge such ingrained assumptions. Those with children should be vocal about their parental responsibilities. I encourage male leaders to take the lead here as female leaders are also subjected to the “motherhood penalty”.

2. Dial down the pressure

Yes, WFH can be highly productive – but under normal circumstances. Today, with the closure of schools and increase of household tasks, the circumstances are anything but normal. Putting an unreasonable amount of pressure on team members will not only alienate them (regardless of gender), but also put your female talent at risk of being pushed out altogether.

Studies have repeatedly shown that within families, women’s careers generally take a backseat to men’s. When push comes to shove, women will step back from their jobs. It’s up to business leaders to prevent this lose-lose scenario by not putting team members in a position where they have to choose home and work. As the HBR article mentioned above explains:

Instead of relying on a level of time and effort that your team members are simply unable to give, you need to be ruthless about priorities and business needs. Identify what really matters, and ask people to devote their best effort, whatever that means. By setting reasonable expectations about the amount of time team members can be expected to spend on work, you’ll get exponentially greater engagement. 

3. Safeguard women’s seats at the table

Under pressure to make rapid decisions, leaders may prefer to work in smaller groups. Think about the people you generally invite: do they all look like you? It’s human nature to be biased in favour of “people like us”. Since most leadership positions are held by men, this often means male-dominated groups call the shots. To ensure your female talent isn’t being left out, take a minute to consider your invitee list. Is there anyone else whose voice and input would be valuable? Is there someone who isn’t really required but was included just because you like them?

4. Cultivate inclusive, safe digital norms

Of course, leaders can’t entirely prevent exclusionary behaviour such as side conversations or private virtual gatherings. They can, however, remind teams what they expect from them: to have an inclusive attitude, to share their remarks with the entire group and to be respectful of each other. During virtual meetings, pay attention to who is participating and whose comments go unnoticed. It’s well known that women’s contributions are often overlooked – a problem that worsens during glitch-ridden video calls. Take the role of facilitator (or assign another team member) to solicit input from those who are being overshadowed.

Inappropriate behaviour must be dealt with swiftly and firmly. Sadly, even during WFH, harassment persists. Women team members should not feel unsafe via digital channels – from inappropriate comments during meetings, to unwanted side chats. To create a safe working environment, leaders must immediately put new norms into place and ensure compliance.

5. Plug informal gaps

Informal networks often determine who gets invited to key meetings, gets plum assignments and moves up the ladder. The unofficial coaching provided by leaders is also crucial for career learning and progression. Even before COVID-19, women team members found it tough to break into these male-dominated spaces. With WFH as the new norm, leaders must ensure that women don’t lose out entirely on the benefits of these informal resources. Don’t let it become a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. Be it a post-meeting debriefing or a spontaneous discussion, include promising women team members as well, and offer them the same learning and feedback opportunities.

To support and retain female talent, leaders must respond quickly to the unique conditions created by the pandemic. Address the accelerating imbalance in order to enable women team members to contribute to your organisation (and the economy) for years to come.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.



*This quote is from a poem that has been widely circulated on social media (author unknown):

“I heard that we are in the same boat.

But it’s not like that.

We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.

Your ship can be shipwrecked and mine might not be.

Or vice versa.

For some, quarantine is optimal: a moment of reflection, of re-connection.

For others, this is a desperate crisis.

For others it is facing loneliness.

For some, a peace, rest time, vacation.

Yet for others, Torture: How am I going to pay my bills?

Some were concerned about a brand of chocolate for Easter.

Others were concerned about the bread for the weekend, or if the noodles would last for a few more days.

Some were in their “home office”.

Others are looking through trash to survive.

Some have experienced the near death of the virus, some have already lost someone from it, some are not sure their loved ones are going to make it, and some don’t even believe this is a big deal.

Some of us who are well now may end up experiencing it, and some believe they are infallible and will be blown away if or when this hits someone they know.

So, friends, we are not in the same boat.

We are going through a time when our perceptions and needs are completely different.

And each one will emerge, in his own way, from that storm.

Some with a tan from their pool. Others with scars on the soul (for invisible reasons).

It is very important to see beyond what is seen at first glance. Not just looking. More than looking…


See beyond the political party, beyond religion, beyond the nose on your face.

Do not underestimate the pain of others if you do not feel it.

Do not judge the good life of the other, do not condemn the bad life of the other.

Don’t be a judge.

Let us not judge the one who lacks, as well as the one who exceeds.

We are different ships looking to survive.

Let everyone navigate their route with respect, empathy and responsibility.


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